The experiment

Today is the last day of winter vacation. Tomorrow (Saturday), we go back to school. The students show up Monday and it may be we will have a series of presentations for them, not all of which I will need to deliver myself. The workload is not that heavy for the first week, but it has its own frustrations. It’s tiring, even if there is not much to do. Certainly, the rhythm of daily life will change: it’s time to reflect and to make a course correction as needed.

The experiment I refer to is French. In August, I had the idea of studying language in my spare time. I’m not trying to write novels anymore–I’ve given that up. I don’t have kids living in my house. I do have time–if not always energy–for things that interest me.

I began by putting time into several languages. French only got 20 minutes a day. I did some research on how many hours it takes to learn a language to some kind of basic level (typically) and I began to realize 20 minutes a day would mean waiting a very long time to see results. This would be all right except that it’s hard to evaluate your methods. It’s like therapy: is this just a long process or is my approach actually not working? How would you even know?

So I switched it up. I think at first I spent an hour a day. It might have been two. When regular classes ended and we just had exams to deal with, I went for three. For part of the vacation, I spent six hours or more on it.

I studied French because it seemed like I had the best chance of success: it’s the easiest language for an English speaker to learn and I already had some background. I mentioned before I felt I had something to prove to myself, partly about being able to learn, partly about being able to pursue a goal and succeed in it. In the process, I learned some things about myself as well as about learning.

I almost succeeded, I should also say. Initially, I had the goal of being able to understand ordinary conversation to a reasonable degree, the kind of thing you hear on TV. I thought it would be great to be able to watch a French TV show and follow the plot well enough to enjoy it. Yesterday, I didn’t think I was anywhere close to that, but then I watched something today and I understood very clearly maybe a third of the time. At other times, I was floundering still or scanning the action carefully for clues. So I didn’t reach my goal in 6 months, but I may get there in another few weeks. That’s pretty good, in my view, and I feel proud of what I was able to do.

It changes how I see myself in ways I haven’t digested yet. They may not stick. It’s sometimes hard for me to tell the difference between a mood and a paradigm shift. I’ll let you know.

(I didn’t finish the post. It’s Sunday now. I had a stressful morning for complicated reasons, couldn’t understand anything and don’t feel the same kind of pride. It may come back…I’m just not sure what I accomplished.)

At a simple level, since I’m a teacher it interested me to observe the balancing act of challenge. Too much challenge, and we don’t enjoy learning and aren’t able to stick with it–we may not even learn. Too easy and we lose out on a sense of accomplishment. We did it, but what we did has no meaning. I’m sure this varies from person, and also perhaps from day to day, but everyone has a sweet spot where effort pays off in meaningful ways. I learned to expect this kind of variation. On some days, more challenge felt good and was productive. On others, I couldn’t hack it.

I had some observations about myself as a learner. Some of it may be true for other people. Some of it is probably about being gifted and some is about trauma.

The hallmark of giftedness is uneven development and a need for complexity to sustain interest. I once had a gifted student who couldn’t solve simple equations accurately, but he was much more competent if they were long and difficult. I’m sure he got bored and his mind wandered. So I worked at the highest level of challenge I could sustain, and not where I actually was. It means I sometimes lack foundation. There are gaps and holes in what I know. But you have to keep wanting to learn. And I accepted I am like this.

My performance from day to day is not consistent either. This is probably about trauma. It’s hard for me to keep my brain working well. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost ground. In my life, this is my single greatest frustration. More than most people, sometimes I am great at things. Sometimes I am really not great at those same things. It’s not just a matter of perspective.

But I can learn.

Traumatic Families

I’ve been thinking trauma is inherited. Not just that my parents, in responding to me, taught me to cope in the way that they coped with their traumas even though these same events might not happen to me, but also that trauma begets abuse.

Not to conflate traumatized people with abusers, but it is the traumatic impact of abuse which caused my parents to abuse me. This is not really rocket science. Everyone knows this, but I have been wondering exactly, precisely what is the mechanism of inheritance.

I had a 3-day weekend, quite unusually and very mercifully given the anniversary effect involved, following Halloween. I felt awful, but kept my shit together enough to get through the day and landed here, on a Tuesday now, with some answers.

I should add the reason this is so important to me is that I believe that my relationship with my parents shapes my relationship with myself, and I speculate it is largely my relationship with myself that causes me misery. Secondarily, it is my relationship with others, and lastly it is the actual, day-to-day impact of the trauma itself. One of my bloggy friends mentioned in a pot that her parts have been living in an abusive environment, and this has stayed with me since I read that. I think she’s really on to something.

That may not be unusual to think, except that I don’t tend to have the cascade of negative thoughts other people describe. I suddenly feel bad. Parts complain about how awful they feel. And it’s extremely hard for me to work out what precipitated the bad feelings. But something is going on.

So I think it’s this. What’s inherited is difficulty in mentalizing: difficulty in understanding or making sense of desires and intentions. It may be there are deficiencies in this area, because the mind of the other feels so menacing or is overwhelming and painful. How do I respond to my mother if I understand her intention is to cause me harm? It may be that the parent’s inner world is so confusing there seems to be no point in trying to understand why they do what they do.

Normally, what’s happening for a parent is not impossible for a child to see, although it may be different from the child’s experiences. Parents are hungry and thirsty and tired too. They want to get to work and school on time. They want you to buckle your seatbelt so they can drive safely. Parents are surprised by sudden noises that surprise children too. As a child, with some effort, you can work out why parents feel the way they do, because people’s inner worlds are related to their outer worlds and you can see it and hear it. If your parent, like my father’s mother, is responding to sounds and images that you cannot see or hear, you may give up on trying to understand people altogether.

That’s one piece: the developing child who is, for whatever reason, unable to understand other people’s experiences and then may grow up to be a parent unable to understand their children’s experiences. This, of course, we think of as being an element of pathological narcissism, but it is not all of narcissism. It’s only one aspect.

You may also have a child whose self-image is so negative that it’s painful to think of the self, so however well someone else understands the child, she cannot see herself as she is imagined within someone’s mind.

The other piece of what I believe may lead to the inheritance of trauma is the result of not having a parent who imagines your experiences, or even if they imagine it, but as a child it’s so painful or confusing for you to see what they imagine that you don’t know if they are able to understand your experiences or not. The only way to know if they understand is if you can see it in their actions. In other words, the lack of imagining of other people’s mental states, increases the pressure to get your way, because it’s only when you get what you want that you feel yourself existing in the world.

And this happens both for children and for parents in these families. Power becomes very important, because what is at stake in interactions is not merely your comfort, but a sense of being real and alive. For the child, getting the toy they want is not merely about a toy, but feeling they are themselves. For the parent, having a child who won’t go to bed when you tell him means you lose your sense of yourself.

Naturally, we all get a sense of efficacy when we can have an impact on the world. None of these things are abnormal.It’s simply the pressure on this as a part of our identities that’s overly intense, because other ways of feeling we exist cannot be relied on (namely, empathy).

Of course, adults usually have more power than children in the world, and so they may be more likely to win in these seemingly life-or-death contests over whose will might prevail. The child complies, feels perhaps dead inside, or turns away from the punishing, smothering parent thus losing the opportunity to learn the social skills normally developed within the family.

The third piece of that attachment impulses are easily activated, because the degree of conflict inherent in normal, everyday activities is so great. You feel like you might need help with simple things, because with a parent who feels not getting her way makes her disappear, you must be prepared to fight hard or not at all. The weapons may be physical, but there are parents who don’t hit, but instead attack your self-image, your sense of belonging, or your status.

I cannot tell you how much this set of assumptions about what forces may have shaped me make my day-to-day experiences coherent and comprehensible. Getting up in the mornings is difficult for me. I wake up early, I feel like doing things, but physically getting started is really hard. It’s painful and upsetting. For years, I’ve mostly noticed attachment pain, but sometimes I’m angry or despairing.

If the question in my childhood was, “Who gets to exist today?” then this makes total sense. I’m terribly scared. I think I might need help. I may be angry at an anticipated struggle over who gets to exist. I may even be angry that there is no one there to do my bidding and make me feel that I exist by doing what I want.

I don’t know what to do to solve the problems this is causing me, but I think it’s a start.

 

Stasis

I said I’ve had some ideas, but then I didn’t really write about them.

One of them is about how the parent, in a sense, trains the baby’s brain what state to aim for. Of course, there is something inherent–no one likes to be unhappy all the time, no one can stand overwhelming pain. And yet we learn what only seems dangerous and it isn’t, what must be accepted even though we don’t like it. We learn how much stimulation to seek, what level of alertness to maintain. We are born with a temperament, but our parents also modulate it.

In the staff room, I think about it this, because I suspect some of what I don’t like is an attempt to increase the degree of alertness in other people, because some teachers are accustomed to hyper-vigilance. It’s attention-seeking, but then I wonder if there’s a deeper purpose.

We talk about becoming habituated to drama, and yet I also wonder if this happens because, in fact, the trait is passed down because evolution assumes it enhanced your parent’s survival and will enhance yours.

Anyway, it’s a thought to try on for a while.

I had another thought about relationships, and about the kinds of relationships I may be accustomed to. The thing is that over the years I have ended up with maybe fewer harmful relationships, but generally I think they may be of the same type and that something fundamental in how I relate to people has not changed.

I had talked about the baby developing a sense of “badness” as a result of a parent’s trauma or depression. The parent looks at the child and appears to feel pain or fear or anger, and so the child experiences herself as a source of danger and learns to cope by avoiding self-reflection and situations in which she might begin to put herself in someone else’s position and imagine how they see her. Self-monitoring is in some ways impaired as a result. Attention is not split between the self and the other, but compartmentalized. Either I see you and what you intend and desire, or I see what I intend and desire, but a child like this grows up unable to see as clearly how her efforts to communicate her desires and intentions might be experienced by others.

A sense of the self develops in which others are assumed not to want to care for the child. If I am bad, why would someone want to care for me? The mother must be forced, and so the child develops controlling attachments: this is not always the outcome of disorganized attachment, but it often is. Controlling attachments may be punitive/controlling or caretaking/controlling. Punitive/controlling is self-explanatory, I would guess. The child maintains the parent’s attention through punitive means. In controlling/caretaking relationships, the child adopts the role of the parent and keeps the parent’s attention and maintains proximity by attending to the parent’s needs and desires.

I think what’s absent in the parent-child relationship in these cases is a sense of having someone concerned about you (as the child in the dyad). You are forcing the parent: there’s no concern. Why would they feel concern for you if you are bad, anyway?

And, indeed, if your parent is a narcissist, she probably does not feel concern. That’s what narcissists are known for. They can understand your feelings, but they don’t care.

I think a sense of starvation develops. It probably works both ways, because these patterns of relationships are learned. The parent may also worry that the child does not care about parent.

What is substituted instead are displays of power. For an instant, I can believe you care about me, if I force you to do something you don’t really want to do. Sacrifice is demanded, but it’s fleeting, because even sacrifice may not come from concern. At some level, we know this. Sacrifice may result from coercion.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I was doing some research for something I didn’t end up writing about and I read about a serial killer who claimed to “love” his victims. Well, they are dead, so obviously what he felt was not concern. But I don’t doubt he felt affection. They gave him something he wanted, and he had a feeling of fondness as a result, but he didn’t feel concern. There was a distinction between affection and a consideration of consequences.

I am reminded especially of my father, in this regard. He may have felt affection for me at times, but this didn’t mean he felt concern. But concern is the backdrop for trust.

To return to the point, though, it seems to me the outcome of a negative view of yourself is an anxiety about concern. Not just, “are you still available to me?” but “are you concerned for me?” Not merely, “will you hurt me?” but “do you care?” And care is so hard to pin down. I think I recognize it, especially in myself. There are times when I can see that I care about myself, and others when I just want my discomfort or unhappiness to stop. There is some kind of difference.

When a sense of care is gotten by forcing someone into doing things they don’t want to do and extracting compliance or sacrifice, then relationships are going to end up being over-involved (because the sense of care is so fleeting). If you grow up with this, and I suspect I did, then the “normal” sense of how a relationship should be will also be over-involved. You might call this enmeshment, but I think enmeshment doesn’t imply the kind of power dynamic I’m talking about as the root of the over-involvement, nor the sense of malignancy about relationships that it leads to.

In other words, if you have this kind of relationship in which the other person seeks to fulfill an emotional need that can’t be effectively filled in this way by demanding something that’s harmful to you, then your reaction to that person over time is likely to become distrustful. It’s self-reinforcing. It comes from such a deep, negative sense of the self that concern seems impossible and leads to a lack of concern that’s real.

If you constantly interfere with my goals, constantly interrupt me, constantly take things away from that give me pleasure, I’m not likely to feel much compassion for you. Your bids for interaction, in fact, are likely to be met with dread.

In myself, I think I seek to fill my brain up with the involvement my mother led me to expect. Someone ought to constantly demand my attention, even if I no longer trust anyone real to do that demanding. I think this is an unconscious signal to others about my expectations of relationships, and the reason I bring the same kinds of relationships into my life even I don’t actually want them.

The ideas, I can see, still require some hammering out, but it’s a starting place for now.

 

 

Fearful Attachment

There is a dog that comes to school. He belongs to VP Ma’am. Keep in mind, she has mixed feelings about pets and feels sorry for animals and feeds them, but doesn’t really like them. So it’s her dog, but don’t imagine great affection between them.

He comes to school, as  lot of dogs, and it’s probably partly about company and partly about free food, because whatever the kids don’t eat, they just dump on the ground for the dogs. Since parents here are often worried about their kids getting enough to eat (an era of starvation probably remains lodged in their subconscious), our dogs are well fed.

What strikes me about the dog is that, unlike other dogs around here that are kept as pets, he won’t allow anyone to touch him. He does not believe anything good can come of physical contact.

It brings home to me how, in human beings, dysregulated parents too unpredictable to decipher create children who have worked out what distance it is safe to be from other people to stay safe while getting enough of their needs met to survive.

I wrote in a previous post about something I read regarding abused children, especially children taken into care having intrusions during the Strange Situation Procedure in which they approach the stranger for comfort and then, en route, collapse in confusion and fear. They really are caught between two instincts: to seek proximity and to flee.

When I think back on C’s simmering anger, sometimes it was because I had crossed that line of what felt safe or, in some cases, she had crossed that line: she was braced to defend herself. I don’t know how to describe the change in my perspective. Declarative knowledge of how traumatized children experience the world alone lacks sufficient detail to be convincing. You need to know how feelings feel, what it makes faces look like, and the kinds of experiences which lead to those reactions. I had not fully grasped the reality of it.

In college, I had a much older friend enrolled alongside the rest of us emerging adults, and she was caught up in a destructive relationship with one of my classmates. Once, she described the classmate as, “Come here, Now go away.” Traumatized people can rely on exerting inappropriate or excessive forms of control, but I don’t know that giving conflicting messages about closeness was exactly a form of control. Equally likely, she was responding to her own instinctive responses to needing support, but feeling afraid during an approach.

I also think maintaining the distance that kept you safe as a child is likely to be taught to the next generation, however distance is maintained–whether you skate lightly over the surface in conversation, or strive for perfection so as not to have any vulnerability, or avoid in-person or real-time interaction. I think the child who finds the right balance between need and fear grows up to be a parent who teaches this same balance to her children, because memories of parent-child interactions surface when she is with her own child. Fear of her parent colours into fear of her child. It’s also carried into romantic relationships, because these are support-seeking/support-giving (attachment) relationships.

It may look and talk like independence, but it is not. It is fear.

In couples therapy, we once completed an exercise in which we drew our personal space in the carpet with our fingers. Mine was so small, I couldn’t stay inside it. What the therapist missed was my wish that at least my own body might be safe. It’s not that I don’t want any buffer space between me and the rest of the world, but I had never had the right to any space at all.

My partner at the time said that we would both need to leave the room for her to feel safe–not even a bedroom-sized therapy room was enough.

I realize now the default for mentalizing other people’s desires and intentions on her part was so determined by previous, abusive or exploitative experiences that she really could not contemplate what anyone might be trying to do in the present. Which, of course, makes it even more scary and confusing, because if you aren’t trying to harm or exploit her, you become an inscrutable mystery.

One of my realizations a few years ago, which sounds slight, but has massive implications for my social life, is that I am unlikely to be the only one in any group to have been traumatized. It’s not me in the midst of normal people. It’s me with a scattering of people who have psychological issues similar to mine, and I had better get it worked out what’s going on with all of us, because I can’t just excise all of them out of my life.

Even if I don’t want to be close to other people with my issues–and they are the ones most likely to understand what I am going through–I work with them. They sit in my classroom.

It helps a lot to understand why people might be acting on instincts to move forward or flee (or fight) and to be mindful when it’s happening so that I can recognize it and react in a gentler way. It should also be helpful to see when I am caught up in these conflicting instincts myself.

With my mother

I have zero contact with my mother and have not had any for decades, so when I think about how our relationship shaped, I have to rely on some degree of imagination. I don’t actually “remember” very much about her.

I do think our relationship is at the core of what happens to me in the mornings when I wake up. As an infant, I woke up, I felt separation anxiety, I cried. And then something upsetting and frightening happened between us.

What was it?

I don’t think it was exclusively acts of physical violence. Violence followed it. That’s my supposition, anyway.

And this is my idea about it.

Because my mother sometimes got it right, sometimes cared for me, and wasn’t entirely rejecting or unresponsive, as an infant I developed an anxious attachment to her. And I think what happens in situations of anxious attachment is that the working model of the self and others revolves around the idea that the caretaker does not want to care for you, but can be forced to do so. There is an underlying assumption of rejection.

The child exaggerates and intensifies signals of distress so that the parent cannot possible overlook the signal, but when comfort is offered, the child appears to reject it, because in fact the presence of the parent triggers feelings of rejection.

The closer the parent comes, the more painful her feelings of rejection are. Given that the parent seems willing to listen to the child, the child’s instinct is again to exaggerate and intensify this feeling: the child wants to communicate to the parent her pain at expecting rejection, and this desire to communicate strengthens the feeling. The child appears to reject the parent and expresses ambivalence about being comforted, because she is trying to regulate the intensity of her rejection pain by trying to get the parent to move away again, so that she is able to lessen this impulse to communicate her pain.

Due to the working model that the parent’s intention is not to offer comfort, and comfort is only being offered under duress, the child is overwhelmed by the pain of rejection. The child’s expectation of rejection is stronger than the reality of the comfort being offered. Anxious attachment emphasizes feelings, and in this mode, feelings strongly shape perceptions of reality. Even if the parent is not rejecting the child, the expectation of rejection is so intense, it will cause the child to perceive rejection even when it is not there.

At a sensory level, my intense expressions of distress overwhelmed my mother. More than that, my apparent ambivalence about accepting her comfort led her to feel incompetent as a parent. I think she saw me and saw failure, saw rejection, saw pain and so she learned to be afraid of me.

This became internalized as my view of myself. In moments when I saw myself, this is who I saw first: someone frightening, monstrous, malignant. Because that’s what my mother saw. I didn’t at that age have an ability to symbolically manipulate images of myself. If my mother saw me as frightening, then I was frightening. Monstrousness seemed to be who I was.

And I think I became frightened of self-awareness.

 

Intermittent Reinforcement

I read some very interesting things today about anxious-ambivalent attachment.

Now, keep in mind that people with disorganized attachment usually have a primary attachment style that breaks down under extreme stress, leading to disorganization. So my likely-borderline mother was often disorganized, but she had a substrate of an organized attachment style.

I’ve not really been normal since I came back to Y-town. I function, but I don’t feel okay. My mind feels squishy, prone to irrationality and intense feelings I can’t understand. So I suppose this made me begin to think about my mother’s attachment style and how it might have felt for me. I seem unable to be productive.

Actually, I didn’t read about preoccupied attachment in adults. I read about anxious-ambivalent infants and the kinds of caretaking relationships they have, which seem to lead to their preoccupation with keeping their parents close.

I don’t necessarily think I have a preoccupied attachment style, but I recognize the kind of mother described and perhaps also the expectations of relationships which this kind of mother passes on to her child.

The primary supposition is that the most effective reinforcement schedule for a behaviour is intermittent reinforcement. Given this, the parent who creates a preoccupied child is inconsistently available. Sometimes the child’s bids for attention and soothing work. Sometimes they don’t. Consequently, the child is conditioned to make a lot of these kinds of bids. She is also fearful of letting go of the parent’s attention, because she has no confidence in her ability to regain it.

The child’s exploratory efforts are curtailed, as her focus must stay on the parent. The result is an impairment in the development of skills which lead toward self-regulation, goal-directed behaviour, and social interaction with peers.

The unconscious goal of the parent creating this kind of needy little monster is to meet her own attachment needs, to ensure that the child remains available to the parent in her order to soothe her, and to prevent feelings of abandonment by undermining the child’s efforts toward developing independence. In fact, the mothers of anxious-ambivalent children are observed to be intrusive, actively blocking the child’s attempts to play or self-soothe.

As the child develops a self-image, it is likely to be one of dependence and helplessness. She is kept helpless in order to support her parent’s need to feel confident. She finds the world difficult to manage, as her ability to explore and develop the skills necessary for independence lag behind that of other children her age, and exploration actually feels more difficult because her mother interferes with it rather than supports it.

There was certainly a lot more going on in my relationship with my mother than this, but I can relate to this, and I have a uncanny sense of being able to “remember” my childhood in a way that feels like remembering to me. Something about the narrative of why things happened connects emotion to other sensory information.

In this kind of relationship, the goal of criticism is to diminish the child’s belief in her efficacy and intensify her dependence on her mother for support. Although her mother is the source of her loss of self-esteem, it’s the parent who must be turned to in its absence.

This makes more sense to me as a part of my mother’s attachment strategy than believing she was merely searching for ways to self-enhance by comparison. Not that people don’t do that, but this fits better.

It explains my otherwise vague sense that she did not like me. She was angry at me for appearing to leave her. Criticism was my punishment, but also the means by which to keep me around. And the thing is this was passed down. The chief conflict between her own mother and herself was a tendency to criticize. Blow-ups followed my grandmother’s criticism of my mother, as it had its desire effect of causing my mother to turn to my grandmother for restoration of her self-image without my mother understanding this as the (unconscious) motive.

It places her sudden intrusions into my attempts to self-regulate and explore into a better context: why she abruptly told me to stop reading and go outside and play. She didn’t really mean it: she just wanted to interrupt me. Why she (twice) went through my trash can for old drafts of stories I was writing and then had rage fits over their contents. She didn’t care if I read or wrote or not. She just didn’t really want me to do anything.

It created in me an expectation of relationships being consuming and that I probably needed to flee them in order to carry out my own interests, but I think it also explains how I feel throughout the day as I have these seemingly irrational states of mind in which I feel hopeless or helpless for no apparent reason.

It’s something I want to track, as I have these negative feelings and intensely bad images of myself: is this about having my independence curtailed? Is it about feeling as though I have failed at eliciting a caretaker’s support? These are the questions for the days which lie ahead.

Dynamic

I have an idea kicking around about the dynamic which develops between a parent like mine–maybe very anxiously attached, maybe borderline, but someone whose cognitive functions are easily overwhelmed by instinct. Things seem to be a certain way, because it feels that way.

A parent like this is difficult for a child to decipher. In a more typical growing-up experience, patterns emerge. These may be stated or unstated, but most children can work out not to touch the hot stove whether or not the parent says “hot” or not, because when the child tries to touch it, the parent consistently acts in an angry way. A parent like mine doesn’t create these kinds of patterns for a child to begin to internalize, because the parent’s perceptions are so strongly biased by small elements of the experience or by traumatic linkages not evident to the child.

A sense of danger increases internal motivation to form judgments and make decisions based on less information: the man caught in the line of fire may only see the gun and not the shooter. A stressed parent’s mind may be especially likely to be biased towards making decisions based on little information, and an anxiously attached parent will do it based on the intensity of emotional experience, rather than its relevancy.

Because the parent’s perceptions of reality are so easily biased, the child has great difficulty interpreting when a situation is dangerous or not. Her task in childhood is to be able to cope more adeptly with situations of danger so that as she grows, everyday experiences are no longer dangerous for her. But, because she is unable to internalize her parent’s viewpoint, her ability to cope with danger is impaired. It becomes important to stay close to the parent, because the parent’s affect seems to be a more reliable indicator of danger than circumstances. Although it is the parent’s mind which is impenetrable, it seems to the child to render life inscrutable.

This need to stay physically close in order to get a read on life inhibits the child’s developmental need to play and experiment, and the exploratory system is impaired. He does not have the chance to develop goal-oriented behaviours: progress towards something desired is shaky. She may grow up to find frustration difficult to manage or inclined to give up too quickly. Or, she may perseverate and ignore signals which indicate maybe she should give up or try another tack.

It impairs the parent’s ability to function as well. The child’s need for constant proximity and interpretation of her experiences interferes with the adult’s pursuit of normal life. Last year, around this time, we had a day when dinner got on a bit late and we all decided we wanted French fries, which take a bit of time, and it was really stressful for me to do it, because one of the kids kept walking back and forth behind me the whole time I was trying to deep fry as though she thought I might forget she was hungry if I didn’t have her body constantly in danger of colliding with mine….It creates a dynamic in which intense closeness is both craved and suffocating.

Of course, it’s not always so benign. The parent’s adult goals may not be caring for the child and creating a stable life for the family, including themselves. The parent may find themselves blocked from lying in bed all day, unsuccessfully self-soothing (as mine did) ,or abusing drugs, or creating with an intimate partner the same kind of consuming relationship the child seeks from the parent.

The child with this kind of parent may grow up to turn this pattern on its head with her own child, simply because that’s the kind of relationship she knows. It serves no real purpose, as monopolizing her child’s attention in the way she attempted to monopolize her parent’s attention serves no real purpose. Her own child is neither unable to inform her of potential danger nor able to help. But it can be instinctive, deeply learned.

When we talk of attachment wounds, I don’t think that wound stems from unmet needs in the past which have left some kind of gaping hole in the self: I think it’s this instinctual craving for a confusing parent to come and make some sense out of life for you, because the parent’s brain was never lucid enough to pass on a reasonable understanding of the world to you.

Some of the layers of experiences with rejection stem from this: the child’s craving for constant attention is incompatible with the demands of modern life; The child must reject the parent in order to develop her own skills.

A more subtle pattern may also develop, in which either the parent or the child may come to avoid relationships altogether as these are experienced as activating this hungry mouth of attachment need.

I think it’s possible, with an adult mind, to undo this, and to develop an understanding of the world which is comprehensible based on observation. I don’t think it always has to be like this, nor do I think one necessarily has to continue to return to enmeshed, consuming relationships.